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Man of the people

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Ralph Erskine is working in London again. As the architect for the £250 million Millennium Village (with Hunt Thompson), Erskine proposes a sustainable development with all the gizmos to provide homes for the twenty-first century and the infrastructure to create a community. If anybody is capable of creating a community spirit in a part of England where it is practically non- existent, it will be Erskine, who has been studying and practising community architecture internationally for over 50 years.


Erskine believes architecture is a social art, and he has a set of values and a philosophy of which he has never lost sight. He has stuck to his definition of the meaning and purpose of architecture as ‘the art around that which is useful and to the enhancement of our environment’. He has produced more than 100 buildings and community developments which fulfil his criteria of serving individuals, groups of individuals and, not least, our society.


He was born in 1914. Following a Quaker education, he studied at Regent Street Polytechnic alongside Gordon Cullen, learning about the full gamut of architectural styles. ‘Don’t imitate forms from other cultures or times,’ says Erskine, ‘but do imitate the enormous inventiveness with which they meet the needs of their situations and their time.’


In 1939, after a brief spell at the office of Louis de Soisson, working on the city of Welwyn and taking his rtpi qualification at night school, Erskine left for Sweden. As a socialist he left a country on the brink of war for one which embraced socialism and modern architecture, and which gave him the opportunity to use architecture in a wider social sense.


He married his childhood sweetheart Ruth at Stockholm City Hall in August 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war in Europe. The Erskines were booked on a boat for England to join the Quaker ambulance service and assist in the war effort. The boat, however, never left, and despite attempts to return they remained in Sweden. A number of private commissions followed, enabling the Erskines to build their modest first home, ‘the box’, on a piece of rocky landscape donated by a friend in Lissma.


From the start, all Erskine’s commissions showed his respect for place and humanity. In 1948 he designed Borgafjall Hotel in Lapland. His ability to merge the building into the landscape, with a roof which could act as a nursery slope in the winter and grass resting area in the summer, demonstrated his feeling for both the harsh climatic conditions and the user’s requirements.


Commissions in the 1950s ranged from a scout hut to a cardboard factory. In 1959 Erskine became a founder member of Team 10. His projects in the uk include Clare Hall in Cambridge (1969), where he proposed and achieved ‘an open-ended and attractive environment which was free from memories of medieval and renaissance monumentality or opulence to ally with the new society rather than the establishment’. But his most significant work here is as community architect of Byker in Newcastle (1969- 81), a collaboration that began by Erskine living with the community for one month before accepting the commission, and setting up an office on the site throughout the contract to listen to and understand the needs of residents.


His convivial nature and ability to communicate at every level were still evident during the construction of the Ark. The design team would down tools to walk around the site and later eat with this amusing old gentleman who had more mental and physical energy than his attentive audience, all of whom were half his age.


Erskine’s recent work in the uk reflects the plight of the British: a corporate office building which turned speculative during construction, the CrossRail development which is on hold, and an invitation from a consortium to work on the King’s Cross millennium development. When asked to work speculatively on this project, he suggested Camden Council donate to an orphanage in Bosnia in lieu of his fees. Camden never responded and Erskine went back to Drottningholm. This incident hit the headlines in the uk, as did his unscheduled appearance at the 1996 uia in Barcelona, where he was reported as ‘berating the profession for its lack of interest in issues of poverty’ and stating that ‘architecture was in danger of extinction’.


On the Millennium Village Erskine will work in the way he has for the past 20 years. He maintains a small office in Drottningholm, working in collaboration with other studios in order to retain personal design freedom. This is a relationship he has enjoyed latterly in this country with Rock Townsend and bdp, but the Hunt Thompson collaboration is a new departure. Erskine has stipulated that the majority of design sessions are at his studio to limit his travelling. He says he has found the scheme ‘a rejuvenating and invigorating experience, improving [his] health and well being by occupying [his] thoughts and creativity into the early hours’. He has natural reservations about whether his vision will be realised. Erskine is a true community architect - a term that has been diluted and misused over the years. The fact that he has been appointed is a flicker of hope for architecture and community living for the next century.

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